Beer is important to me.
I hope beer is important to you too, because a fine ale is the perfect motivation to go indoors – and in Tacoma, going indoors is a pretty common activity during the coming dreary months. When life no longer permits us to engage in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, beer is there to swaddle us in its frothy arms, lulling us into the resignation of adulthood and paunchiness.
Lately, our local culture has offered greater validation to me and my beer-loving compatriots.
When the craft beer movement picked up steam in the 1990s, beer began to take on the artsy tastefulness usually associated with discerning consumption of scotch and wine. This evolution coincided with the emergence of the Puget Sound region as a cultural superpower – an area with a historic affinity for brewers and drunkards. So, it makes a lot of sense to me that Tacoma is practically awash in great libations. There’s enough wonderful Northwest beer here that we have taverns catering almost exclusively to “beer snobs” – places that rarely (if ever) serve Red Hook, Full Sail, New Belgium or other national flagship brands of American craft brewing; and if those brands are on tap at all, only their specialty batches make an appearance.
Unfortunately, most blessings culture bestows upon us are mixed. Just as the British Invasion gave us The Beatles, it also dropped King George III on our shores, and we can all agree that wasn’t very cool. Grunge spawned both Nirvana and Jars of Clay – and who will ever know which of those bands was best? Rap gave us Run DMC and those weird Incubus songs with the off-key record scratching. Similarly, the benefits of this remarkable northwest beer scene are counterweighted by more unfortunate or complicated issues.
Tacoma has access to a bevy of undeniably great Northwest ales, some of which are made in our own backyard.
7 Seas, to the north of us in Gig Harbor (though to the best of our knowledge, all their brewers live in Tacoma), comes to mind first. I wouldn’t hesitate to describe their brews as world-class. The balance of hops and malt is so fine, I want to become 1972 Mick Jagger and write a drug-addled come-hither song about it.
Elk Head brewing in Buckley makes exceptionally bold and tasteful beers just a few miles east of us, with a workman-like absence of fanfare.
Seattle’s Schooner Exact beers are Tacoma favorites, too, earning resounding acclaim for their great pale ales.
M.T. Head in Graham might not have the name recognition of the other brewers I’ve listed, but their IPA is always a hit at Red Hot – a joint that rivals the Parkway Tavern as twin bastions of Tacoma’s beer culture.
They may not be brewing beer themselves, but Barry and Renee Watson, owners of the brand-spanking-new Pint Defiance bottle shop and tasting room, have expanded the reach of Tacoma’s beer obsession. As former owners and managers of Rosewood Cafe in north Tacoma, they hold a wealth of expertise in the field of Northwest brewing.
I’m barely scratching the surface here.
Broadened to a regional scale, the task of naming all the great brewers would be nearly impossible – and rather pointless. Tacoma’s beer aficionados know, and they don’t need my recommendations. These days, it feels as if Tacoma was established at the crossroads of Olympia, Seattle, and Portland for the express purpose of drinking the beer from those cities.
When pondering the beers that are actually brewed in Tacoma’s city limits, however, many beer enthusiasts might lower their countenance and take on the posture of someone suffering from mild gastric distress. It’s a discomfort that isn’t often spoken of in a city that’s so fiercely supportive, insular, and defensive. But the discomfort is there.
Any newcomer to Tacoma can easily find Tacoma beer. The most obvious source is The Harmon establishments – the main tavern downtown, with The Taproom and The Hub in the Stadium District. Those restaurants attract unrelenting waves of diners and drinkers, an the appeal is obvious: microbrewed beer, traditional American pub food, historic atmosphere, and generally reliable service.
But is the Harmon roster of beers any good? For those who casually dabble in craft beer consumption, I’m sure it’s satisfactory – perhaps fantastic. It might even be fair to say that these beers provide an approachable entry point into the world of Northwest craft brewing. But do Harmon beers have anything to offer to “beer snobs” like me?
I’ll confess to being a bit obsessed with hops, which means I tend to cling to brewers who can fashion a lively and sharp pale ale. The Harmon’s pale ales are neither lively nor sharp, and their India Pale Ale falls flat when placed beside even something as simple as Georgetown’s Lucille IPA. But their ESB pays an admirable homage to a style Pacific Northwest brewers tend to overlook. It’s a surprisingly drinkable bitter ale with the typical hard-edged flavors smoothed out, resulting in a delectable draught. Their blonde ale on the other hand, is a mindless mouthful of grain and bubbles.
Harmon’s seasonal offerings are largely hit-or-miss. Lately, their single-hop pale (One Hop Wonder) impressed me with its subtle brightness. And the Creamsicle Ale, typically brewed in the spring and summer, has a fervent Tacoma following. But I’ve had more than one flavor-infused beer or goofy porter from Harmon that left me wondering if a misguided cocktail mindset had influenced the recipe.
Harmon beer is not for aficionados. They are friendly, drinkable creations that stay within marketable boundaries, appealing to a broad spectrum of people with only a passing interest in beer. And if that approach draws crowds to Tacoma’s downtown and Stadium District while aiding in the preservation of our historic buildings, I have to applaud it warmly. Harmon Brewing Company is a great community booster.
I’m not going to talk about The Ram. Sure, they brew beer in Tacoma; but they brew beer everywhere else in the region too. The Rock may be a semi-local chain, but they are neither Tacoma-specific nor, apparently, capable of producing a beer worthy of ingestion.
Those who have been in Tacoma long enough will remember the glory days of its first brewpub – Engine House 9. I am told by reliable sources that it was once a fine place to carouse before 6th Avenue became a trendy destination. The beer was great, and the ambience – a dim historic fire house – was unbeatable.
When I moved to Tacoma five years ago, Engine House 9 was the first restaurant I visited. By then, the place had seen better days. The tap system seemed to want maintenance. The beers all tasted vaguely similar, with an odd out-of-place sweetness and a hint of something I could only describe as “dirty grain” haunting the aftertaste. The hefeweizen was particularly raunchy.
In short order, I stopped drinking at Engine House 9.
But something has changed there recently, and it bodes well for Tacoma’s beer reputation. Engine House 9 has new owners, and they’ve invested in cleaning and maintaining the brewing equipment, while bringing on a new, respectable brewing team – which includes Parkway Tavern’s beloved Sean Jackson and the talented Shane Johns. The results are almost shocking: Engine House 9 is making great beer.
Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing challenging or overtly interesting about Engine House 9’s standard beers. They are not bold or idiosyncratic, by any stretch of the imagination. But sometimes, you don’t need a complicated beer. There’s flavorfully crisp sustenance, with a pleasing consistent quality across the entire line-up. I tried each of their standard offerings, and couldn’t form one complaint.
It’s their specialty beers, brewed by Shane Johns, that prove this rebirth has made E9 a beer destination, according to the Red Hot’s Joe Korbuszewski. “Strong Dark Belgians blended with imperial stout, one-off IPA’s, and the Brettanomyces Saisons and Sours… Fascinating stuff.”
Let’s not discuss the food (though I wonder when Tacoma will deserve at least one gastropub with enough culinary creativity to make a menu that doesn’t induce yawning).
A lot of folks in Tacoma are very excited about Wingman Brewery in the Dome District. These go-getters hit the ground running, cranking out savvy merchandise and selling their ales in cans, kegs, and from their fantastic tap room on Puyallup Avenue. But here’s the thing: The beer is no good.
My criticism of this brewer is carefully worded. The beer is not horrible, but it’s not good either: it smacks of an amateurish brewing approach. When drinking Wingman, you get the feeling there is no steady hand on the wheel. If you go to their tap room, you’ll notice that every beer tastes suspiciously of Belgian yeast – even the IPA. The beer is quite fresh, but also disappointingly flat. And it doesn’t taste the same from batch to batch.
If I felt that one negative review could sink the fortunes of a fragile new business like Wingman, I’d refrain from sending these words out to the general public. I surmise that Wingman is getting its bearings and will probably grow to become a great anchor and asset to the Dome District; but it does no one any good to pretend that they’re currently generating a great and consistent product. After all, they are selling us beer, not friendship. I cherish the hope that beer will get better at Wingman. In the meantime, I intend to buy their t-shirts and wear them a lot.
For now, the clear winner in the genre of easily-available Tacoma-brewed beers is Engine House 9. For a place that’s been out of the spotlight so long, and earned such a dull reputation for mediocrity, this current distinction is a rousing underdog victory. Honestly, I did not want to like Engine House 9’s ales. I was no longer drawn to the place at all – because it seemed like such a sad, sad has-been – but I’ve never enjoyed being wrong quite as much as I did when those well-made brews drew me in.
Of course, taste is an individual thing, and I expect many readers will disagree with my unsubtle musings on Tacoma beer. However, if anyone should become uncomfortably riled, may I suggest a cold pint as adequate treatment? If you’re looking for something a little different, and if it’s been a few years since you parked yourself on a stool at Engine House 9, I recommend that you give it another try. If you think I’m wrong, let me know – and I’ll take you out for a beer somewhere else. Maybe Wingman. But probably Parkway.